Thursday, February 12, 2009

HUMANIZING ROBOTS--AND VICE VERSA

Matthea Harvey discusses the futuristic imagery of her latest poetry collection.


By Jeannine Hall Gailey
Poetry Media Service

Matthea Harvey's latest book, Modern Life, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, is obsessed with devastated worlds and hybrid forms of life. In two extended abecedarian sequences, the "Terror of the Future" and "The Future of Terror," Harvey explores the dysfunction between civilian and military populations in a stark, futuristic environment. In the "Robo-Boy" series of poems, a robot-boy struggles to define himself in human terms while confronting a brutal and confusing world.

Jeannine Hall Gailey: Are you interested in Japanese pop culture? If so, do you have any favorite anime?

Matthea Harvey: I love [Hayao] Miyazaki's Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle. There is such freedom of invention in both of them. In the same way that a strong voice in a poem can transport you anywhere, that distinctive animation style lets you surrender to the story. The characters are wonderful--I am a particular fan of the mysterious No Face, a black figure with a white mask face who seems connected to the Noh tradition, and the critterly Susuwatari, soot sprites that are essentially fuzzy black spheres with big eyes.

JHG: Do you think the images and themes of manga and anime have permeated our artistic sensibilities? Have cyborgs and post-apocalyptic landscapes affected your writing?

MH: I think many cultures are interested in post-apocalyptic landscapes and human-robot hybrids--we're always projecting ourselves into the future, aren't we? The post-apocalyptic world of "The Future of Terror" and "Terror of the Future" arose in the writing. My interest in hybrids may go back to the centaurs in Greek mythology and, in The Chronicles of Narnia, the mermaids. I can't remember a time when I wasn't interested in hybrids. I recently found some mind-boggling photo-hybrids online by Khoa Tran--a cat-penguin, a horse-duck, and a dog-gull, among others. And I've just remembered how enchanted I was by Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies.

JHG: When I first read your Robo-Boy poems, I immediately thought of the early-fifties Japanese anime series Astro Boy, which is about a boy-robot hero powered by nuclear energy who tries to save the world from various villains and disasters. Astro Boy ponders questions of free will and good and evil despite his robotic form.

MH: Robots are another old love. My first robot crushes were R2-D2 and K9, Doctor Who's robot dog. I didn't know anything about Astro Boy until you mentioned him to me, but reading about him and watching a few episodes, he's clearly Robo-Boy's cooler cousin. I particularly love that Astro Boy prefers the cube shape to the shape of a flower, and I liked the scene in which his skin suit is pulled over his robot body. Astro Boy (with his rocket legs and laser fingers) is much more powerful than Robo-Boy, though: He's a force for good in the world, whereas Robo-Boy is just trying to muddle through, like we are. I liked writing about him because of his different perspective on the human, especially those things we take for granted, such as fingerprints and experiencing the full palette of emotions.

JHG: One of the things I find most interesting is Robo-Boy's struggle to be both fully human and fully machine, a common theme in anime series such as Ghost in the Shell and FullMetal Alchemist, and in Miyazaki's works, such as Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Does Robo-Boy personify our discomfort and fear that technology is dehumanizing us?

MH: I wasn't consciously thinking about our fears about technology (though I dislike the slightest change to my computer). Robo-Boy's struggle is part of the whole book's concern with being in the middle of things--cat/goat, poetry/prose (I think the equator probably feels that it is in an uncomfortable position). In Robo-Boy's case, his struggle is as you describe it: being half-machine and half-human. Somehow, that struggle seems to magnify the human struggles we all go through: who am I, where do I fit in, etc. For that reason, and because I wanted his own struggle about identity to be mirrored in the reader's perceptions, I was careful not to describe his physical characteristics too much--I wanted him to shimmer between people's ideas of what a robot looks like and what a boy looks like. I admired how with Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red, you sometimes forget that Geryon is a red monster. But now let me contradict myself: Delirium Press published a limited edition chapbook of the Robo-Boy poems called No One Will See Themself in You, and Doug McNamara did the illustrations. His Robo-Boy was quite mechanical (you could see the rivets on his head) but incredibly human in affect. That preserved the shimmer, I think.

I spent a good bit of the fall making cardboard robots and spray painting them silver on my roof (I had a Halloween robot book party when Modern Life came out), and it reinforced something that Scott McCloud talks about in Understanding Comics: how quick we are to see human qualities--for example, we see a face in two dots and a semicircle. It's a bit sad to think we're a species scurrying around looking for reflections of ourselves, but also sweet.

JHG: The post-apocalyptic tone in "Terror of the Future" and "The Future of Terror" seems to me clearly focused on the anxieties of Americans post-September 11. Roland Kelts, among others, has compared our bewilderment after September 11 to the bewilderment of the Japanese after World War II.

MH: The book was written post-9/11, and the terror and anger in the book are partly from that event, but I think the poems address that in a general way (paradoxically by being very specific). "The Future of Terror" and "Terror of the Future" series are set in an apocalyptic time in the future--I didn't imagine any particular country--so it makes sense that the anxiety in them could apply to any war-time. Terror doesn't know historical or national boundaries.

Jeannine Hall Gailey is the author of Becoming the Villainess and an editorial consultant at Crab Creek Review. Her web site is jeanninegailey.com. This interview originally appeared on poetryfoundation.org. Read more about Matthea Harvey, and her poetry, at poetryfoundation.org

© 2008 by Jeannine Hall Gailey. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

THE PLAY OF OPPOSITES

A reissued translation of late T'ang dynasty poetry unites ancient form and raw emotion.


by Eric Ormsby
Poetry Media Service

Poems of the Late T'ang, edited and translated by A.C. Graham. NYRB Classics. $14.95

In the year 755 common era, when the T'ang dynasty was shaken by violent rebellion, many of its leading citizens--courtiers as well as poets--took to the roads. The dynasty was weakened but would endure for another century and a half, until it would be overthrown in 907. For the exiles, no return seemed possible.

One of these was the poet Tu Fu (or Du Fu, as his name is now romanized), generally considered the greatest of classical Chinese poets. In the poems he composed during his years of wandering, and especially in his last poems, written not long before his death in 770, at the age of 58, he mourned this loss. "I walk a road each day more desolate," he wrote. But what is most striking in these final poems is neither his nostalgia for the ancient capital of Chang'an, where, as he wrote, "the mansions of princes and nobles all have new lords," nor his sorrow at losing his position at court--and with it, his livelihood--nor even the pain of separation from family and friends. It is the sense of a hard-won serenity infusing every line which makes of his last poems both a surprise and a puzzle.

In "Poems of the Late T'ang," translated and with an introduction by the late A.C. Graham--and now reissued from the original Penguin edition of 1965--seven remarkable poets step from the shadows of a long-vanished dynasty. They range from Tu Fu to Meng Chiao (751-814), the "poet of cold," to the violent and extravagant Li Ho (791-817), one of the most original of all Chinese poets, and finally to Li Shang-yin (c. 812-858), an erotic poet of astonishing versatility.

Like Arthur Waley or David Hawkes, Graham is a both a lyrical and a scholarly translator; the individual accents of each poet ring out distinctively. This isn't as straightforward as it might appear. Classical Chinese poetry was governed by strict conventions. Poems not only rhymed but the syllables of each line were exactly calculated; to make matters trickier, there were tonal patterns as well, dictated by the pitch accents of the language. Add to this the time-honored conventions of topics and imagery--certain subjects, such as romantic love, were considered improper, and Li Shang-yin scandalized critics simply by writing about women. Graham neither rhymes nor counts his syllables, but he does manage to suggest the delicate tension which arose when poets of genius gave small but decisive spins to such conventions. For a T'ang dynasty poet, as Graham makes clear in his superb introduction and notes, poetic convention wasn't oppressive; rather, convention liberated originality.

Graham is as good on the lighthearted poet Tu Mu (803-52)--now better transliterated as Du Mu--as he is on the chilly Meng Chiao or the wild Li Ho. Tu Mu calls himself "a drifter in the blue houses," that is, a frequenter of brothels, while Meng Chiao complains that "the cold wind harshly combs my bones," noting, rather boastfully, that his bones have "hacking edges." Li Ho, strangest of Chinese poets, comes out with such baffling lines as "The blue raccoon weeps blood and the cold fox dies." And yet, the same Li Ho could write, "If heaven too had passions even heaven would grow old," a line in which all the pathos of human experience is obliquely conveyed.

Until his death in 1991, Graham taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and was steeped in Chinese philosophy as well as poetry. He was fascinated by the supple play of opposites in Chinese thought--his study "Yin-Yang and the Nature of Correlative Thinking" is now, sadly, out of print--and this awareness shaped his translations. When Tu Fu writes, "At home in its tree, notice the secret bird: / Safe beneath the waves, imagine the great fishes," he looses a ripple of antitheses. The contrast isn't only between the bird hidden in the leaves and the fish concealed beneath the waves. There is a tacit contrast, as secret as bird or fish, between those creatures and the homeless poet who envisions them. The images are at once objective and deeply personal. As Graham points out, Chinese poets rarely write, "I." No Chinese poet would exclaim with Shelley, "I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!" not only because it would seem blatantly distasteful, but because it would be less powerful. The Chinese poet would show us the thorn and the drop of blood. Our imaginations would draw the inference.

Graham's marvelous little anthology is governed too by the play of opposites. Each of his chosen poets stands in sharp contrast with the others. When Li Shang-yin in a moment of erotic disenchantment writes, "One inch of love is an inch of ashes," he seems utterly opposed to the fantastic Lu T'ung, who celebrates "a demon frog which comes to eat the moon." But both extremes tug against the conventions; they are dissonant and yet they cohere. Like figures from the terra-cotta army of the first Chinese emperor, buried a millennium before the T'ang dynasty not far from the same ancient capital of Chang'an, these seven poets puzzle and surprise: They are distant and familiar at once. Meng Chiao writes that in his verse, "the bones of poetry jut." Thanks to Graham's delicacy of touch, those bones live still.

Eric Ormsby's work regularly appears in The Wall Street Journal, the New Republic, The Paris Review, and other publications. This article first appeared in The New York Sun, where he writes the weekly "Readings" column. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at www.poetryfoundation.org.

© 2008 by Eric Ormsby. All rights reserved